A PMC for 4GW

Way back in 2005, I wrote a book, Neither Shall the Sword, suggesting that the US outsource conventional combat capabilities to private military companies (PMCs). In my original piece, expanded upon in my next book, If We Can Keep It (IWCKI, 2008, available for free download from the Articles page), I recommended using PMCs to replace most conventional military units. The idea was to harness the power of competition to enhance innovation, increase agility, and reduce costs.

I hate to say “I told you so,” but Politico has just published a long article, “Inside the stunning growth of Russia’s Wagner Group,” by Erin Banco, Sarah Anne Aarup, and Anastasiia Carrier: https://www.politico.com/news/2023/02/18/russia-wagner-group-ukraine-paramilitary-00083553

Although Wagner doesn’t appear to have much competition from other Russian PMCs, and Russia hasn’t outsourced most of its armor and infantry to the Group, the article shows how the PMC has become quite agile both in exploiting opportunities and in evading Western responses (sanctions, for the most part). These opportunities include both the war in Ukraine and operations in as many as a dozen countries in Africa and the Middle East.

German composer Richard Wagner (1813 – 1883)

In conventional warfare, as in eastern Ukraine, the focus is on defeating enemy military forces. Over the last few decades, though, military analysts have proposed another form of conflict, “fourth generation warfare.” In 4GW, the focus is on persuading the government of an enemy nation-state to give up the fight, even if their forces are doing well by the usual measures of success in combat. For weaker states and especially entities other than nation-states, 4GW has obvious appeal.

Consider, for example, what happened to us in Vietnam. The North Vietnamese and their allies used propaganda, including international appeals and support to various peace movements, combined with inflicting losses on American forces, to convince the US that the cost of continuing wasn’t worth it. In the end, we were victorious on the battlefield, but defeated in the war.

As our Vietnam experience shows, there are ways to persuade enemies to quit other than defeating them in combat. These constitute the toolkit of 4GW.

IWCKI does mention the potential for PMCs in fourth generation warfare, drawing on ideas from John Robb, Bill Lind, and TX Hammes. As Robb noted:

We can expect to see the use of PMCs continue to grow. For every local or global failure of nation-states to address critical problems, corporate participants in general and PMCs in particular will continue to gain ground. (Brave New War, 91).

And so it has come to pass. I suggested in IWCKI that someday, PMCs could supply complete infantry battalions, not just contractors to maintain their equipment. As you are well aware, that’s exactly what the Wagner Group is doing in Ukraine. But what marks Wagner as a new force in the world and a player in 4GW — not just a provider of military units for conventional combat — is this observation:

Wagner has become, in practice, a PR outfit with a paramilitary arm.

This statement characterizes the Wagner Group as a true 4GW organization, albeit one that also integrates a significant conventional combat capability. One could contrast that to the military establishment of a typical state, which might try to incorporate 4GW missions as additional extra duties.

The article does ramble on, berating the Wagner organization for such PR activities as trying to influence public opinion and elections in the US, Western Europe, and the Baltics. They also get tagged for extensive hacking operations as well as the traditional PMC role of propping up nasty dictators. Not that we would ever do such things.

Although I may have mis-estimated the potential scope of modern PMCs — overemphasizing their combat role, perhaps, although Ukraine — the idea of exploiting their agility and cost-effectiveness, not to mention their ability to recruit people who would never make it through the door of a USMC Recruiting Office — still holds.